by Patrick Williams
It took seven games, but the Toronto Marlies finally vanquished the persistent and stubborn Texas Stars.
Toronto took a 6-1 win in Game 7 of the Calder Cup Finals at Ricoh Coliseum, the crowning moment in a season that a franchise record-tying 54 regular-season wins, an AHL regular season-record 30 road wins, and now a championship.
“What a night for the boys,” Marlies captain Ben Smith said.
Plenty of other Marlies had a lot to say in between turns skating the Calder Cup on home ice.
Marlies goaltender Garret Sparks vowed that he would be much better after a shaky Game 6 performance, and he exactly that in Game 7.
“I felt a personal responsibility to step up [after Game 6], and I thought I did that,” Sparks said.
Sparks, 24, has spent parts of six seasons with the Marlies and relished playing in front of another sell-out crowd. He finished 14-5 in the postseason with two shutouts, a 2.22 goals-against average, and a .915 save percentage.
“It’s indescribable,” he said. “We did it all for [the fans].
“It’s a whole season’s worth that we put in, and I couldn’t be any more proud of this team and what they’ve done. We’re just a group of hard-working individuals who came together as a team, and this is the result. Good guys in the room, amazing talent, great leadership on and off the ice, incredible management, incredible training staff. All of the factors that I listed played a role in this.”
He also made sure to hand off the Calder Cup to his goaltending partner, Calvin Pickard. The two became very close during the season after the Leafs acquired Pickard from the Vegas Golden Knights before the regular season.
“It was the only person I wanted to hand it to,” Sparks said.
Sparks also made a prediction.
“This core group is going to do it again at another level.”
Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe spread praise around the organization and saved plenty of it for Sparks.
“I’m so proud of Garret all season long for the work that he did,” Keefe said.
“It was not even a question for me that he was going to get this opportunity to be there for us, and the fact that he was so solid. Sparks battled for us. The type of year that he has had, and the work that he has put in, it’s just another guy that you’re absolutely thrilled for.
Keefe also reflected on this end to his third season running the home bench at Ricoh Coliseum.
“This has been a championship group all season,” he said.
“You have championship moments as you go through a run like this. The moments in time where the momentum may be shifting, you get down a goal, you need a big shift. It seemed like we had all of those answers.
“That just showed how resilient we were as a team, how competitive we are, and just the fact that we weren’t going to be denied. I just learned that we’re a very resilient group. We talked all year to our team to keep going, keep going all the time.”
Marlies forward Colin Greening has experienced a Calder Cup victory with each of the two organizations he has skated for in his eight seasons of pro hockey.
He won the Calder Cup in 2011 with the Binghamton Senators, his rookie season in the Ottawa Senators organization.
Reflecting on the Marlies’ run through four rounds, he went back to the first round as a turning point. The Marlies found themselves facing elimination in a best-of-five series against the Utica Comets. Their dream season was in danger of ending before they had won so much as a playoff round.
“Utica is a tough team, and that obviously could have gone in their favor, and all of this would have been for naught,” Greening recalled. “You just think about how fickle everything is.
“I’m a big believer that if you want to go far in the playoffs, you have to have some sort of resiliency. You have to face some sort of test.”
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.